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By Harry Eagar, Staff Writer

WAILUKU, Maui (The Maui News, Mar. 3) - When whale researcher Flip Nicklin returned to his base at Lahaina Small Boat Harbor Maui Monday evening, a crowd of whale fans gathered to applaud.

On Tuesday, as he prepared to go out again for his organization, Whale Trust, well-wishers brought him brownies.

"They were high-fiving him," says David Mattila, who is the science and rescue coordinator for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

The reason was Nicklin’s role in untangling a 35-foot whale in the Lahaina Roadstead on Monday afternoon.

Each attempt to free a whale of a tangle of lines and nets is different, but Monday’s successful rescue presented some special features, says Mattila.

For one, this was the first whale he’s untangled that appeared to be a victim of plain old marine debris. Most entangled whales have encountered active fishing gear, he says.

The mass of lines weighed about 50 pounds, and when examined by Allen Ligon, another sanctuary marine specialist, it appeared to include lines or nets from at least 20 sources.

How the whale got mixed up with it is a mystery, but he seemed happy to be rid of it. When it was cut off, says Mattila, the whale took off as fast as he could go to the south and has not been reported since.

The trick with this whale was that although a large amount of stuff was attached to him, there was no long line trailing off for Mattila, Ligon and Ed Lyman, another sanctuary marine specialist, to catch hold of.

So they made a close approach in an inflatable boat, close enough to attach a snap hook and their own, clean line to the junk.

Then they were off on a Nantucket sleigh ride. Mattila, who helped pioneer the art of untangling whales in the Atlantic Ocean, and his colleagues are probably the only people who have been on a Nantucket sleigh ride in the Pacific since the Azorean shore-based whale fishery closed in the 1960s.

The job would have been simpler if the whale would have held still, but he kept moving throughout.

Having attached themselves to the whale, the trio was able to pull themselves up close and cut away at the lines.

The last cut involved working a blade on the end of a pole under the line close to the whale’s head and sawing it off.

Some of Mattila’s failures in disentangling have occurred when a line was so deeply embedded in a whale’s skin that they could not get a blade under the rope.

He and other researchers are devising new gear to approach such problems.

Mattila said Tuesday from the sanctuary offices in Kihei that Monday’s rescue was "a very positive" event.

"Every aspect of the community came together," he said.

First, Captain Chris Nesbitt of the Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Explorer spotted the whale about two miles off Lahaina. After the whale had approached the vessel and passengers could see the lines tangled around its body, Nesbitt called in the sighting.

Mattila says there have been about half a dozen credible reports of entangled whales this season, though this is the first successful rescue. This whale may be the same animal that was reported off Oahu in January. Photographs may confirm that surmise.

Nesbitt’s radio alert attracted researchers Nicklin and Mark Ferrari, of the Center for Whale Studies, who were able to stay with the whale until Mattila’s crew got organized.

That’s the key to a successful rescue of a free-swimming whale, says Mattila -- keeping him in sight.

The Coast Guard pitched in to transport the sanctuary crew, whose own boat was broken down.

Helping in the effort was the knowledge that it is possible. Cutting loose humpback whales began in the North Atlantic in the 1990s, and once an educational campaign aimed at mariners began, reports of entangled whales jumped from five or 10 a year to 50.Approaching a whale, even to do a good deed, is restricted to persons holding permits issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The photos of the rescue were taken under those permits.

The entire adventure, from initial report to departing whale, took about seven hours.

There were plenty of other whales around. On Saturday, PWF had organized its annual Great Whale Count. At 13 shore stations, 110 volunteers and PWF staff counted 659 humpbacks between 8:30 and 11:30 a.m.

Counters worked mostly on the western shore, from Kaanapali to Puu Olai, with one station at Hookipa Beach Park.

Greg Kaufman, president of PWF, estimated that the count was probably low, because winds kicked up whitecaps that made it difficult to see small whales. However, 67 calves were seen.

Harry Eagar can be reached at heagar@mauinews.com

March 4, 2005

The Maui News: www.mauinews.com 

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